Spike Lee and the Bogarting of Palestine

By Yousef Munayyer

Yesterday I became aware of Spike Lee’s emphatic response to a question posed to him at an event in Brooklyn about gentrification. The questioner asked about the “good side of gentrification”. Well, Spike Lee, a Brooklyn native, wasn’t buying into the argument at all. The notion that anyone would put a positive spin on gentrification was so insulting to Lee that he gave an emotional, expletive-laden reply.

I didn’t grow up in Brooklyn and haven’t ever lived there (though I make a point to visit for better than decent shawarma) but something about the question and Spike Lee’s response was so familiar to me. The offense and anger so profoundly felt in his comments was not only something I could sympathize with, but something I could empathize with. Why was this the case? I couldn’t tell right away. 
Here is the question as it was posed to Spike Lee:

You mentioned gentrification with some slightly negative connotations, but I wonder if you have ever looked at it from the other side, which is that if your family was still in that forty-thousand dollar home, it is now worth three and a half/ four million dollars.

Why did this sound so familiar? This morning, while rereading some documents I hadn’t reviewed in some time it hit me. Zionist leader Theodore Herzl wrote to Yusuf Diya-uddin Pasha al-Khalidi who was, in 1899, mayor of Jerusalem. Khalidi had written to the Chief Rabbi of France that the Zionist movement’s interest in Palestine would cause major conflict because Palestine was already inhabited. “In the name of God,” Khalidi wrote to the Rabbi, “Let Palestine be left alone.” Herzl, who saw the letterresponded. Here is an excerpt:

You see another difficulty, Excellency, in the existence of the non-Jewish population in Palestine. But who would think of sending them away? It is their well-being, their individual wealth which we will increase by bringing in our own. Do you think that an Arab who owns land or a house in Palestine worth three or four thousand francs will be very angry to see the price of his land rise in a short time, to see it rise five and ten times in value perhaps in a few months? Moreover, that will necessarily happen with the arrival of the Jews.

There are countless Palestinian refugees who will never see their homes again because entire villages – hundreds of them – have been razed to the ground. An entire society, millennia in the making, was torn apart by Zionism. The smooth talk of a real estate agent is never going to make that appealing.

Gentrification is horrible to see, but colonization, depopulation and enforced exile are worse by an immeasurable factor. Take the anger you heard from Spike Lee, multiply it by whatever you think that factor really is and then maybe, maybe, you can understand the way Palestinians feel about Zionism.

Give me my modest home, my olive trees, my ziet and zaatar and keep your francs – all of them.

As Spike said, you can’t just come and bogart.


Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of The Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center. 

The views in this brief do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.